Saturday, 28 May 2011

A wacky and wonderful journey through science

Dull science is rampant. The worse I can think of are the text books we used in primary and secondary schools (in Malaysia), 30 years ago. So bad, that I cannot remember how the secondary school ones look like. The only primary school science book I can remember is a page with a search for hidden animals. That was way back in Standard 1.

Despite that, I became a scientist. I met many very interesting science teachers who made up for those dire books and kindled my interest in the subject. The best part was having an aunt, who was a science teacher, who always took the opportunity to show the relevance of science in everyday life. Most unforgettable, was the time she bought cow eyes so we could cut them up at home and examine the lenses.

Enter Miss Frizzle and the Magic School Bus - a series of books by Scholastic about scientific topics written in the most entertaining fashion yet packed with nuggets of information. According to the Official Scholastic website for The Magic School Bus the series is almost 25 years old. But I have never seen them until a couple months ago at the Taipei Public Library. The author is Joanna Cole who was an elementary school teacher, librarian and a children's book editor. The books are illustrated by Bruce Degen.

Miss Frizzle is a teacher who is very passionate about her subject. She is portrayed as a wacky woman, very single minded in her quest to impart knowledge and provide experiences for her class of students. She is often the butt of the children's jokes which I find can be quite rude. This I attribute to my Asian perspective of respect and reverence of capable people in a teaching capacity. Or perhaps, I am now too distant from the age where it was hilarious to poke fun at teachers. But I tend to skip those parts when reading to my children. I substitute every nickname for Frizzie/ the Frizz with Miss Frizzle and I erase every mockery of her. Yes, I am a stick in the mud.

The first book we picked up at the end of last year,was "The Magic School Bus and the Electric Field Trip". Miss Frizzle takes the students to a power plant. The children learn how electricity, how it is generated and distributed to homes. They travel through various electrical appliances. 
With all The Magic School Bus classic books, the scientific information is presented in a simple and easy to understand format. There is an element of imagination but the science remains factual. I really like the many layers of information. While the main story progresses, there are side notes in the form of the students' reports which provide additional detail or explanation. Real scientific terms are introduced and explained. The things explored are familiar and relevant. Sometimes, Ae follows the main story. Most times, she ignores the books but if she finds one on a shelve in the library, she brings it to her brother. Ew follows the main story and goes for the extra notes. Sometimes, he requests that I skip those parts, so I do.

If you are uncomfortable with the imaginary aspects of the story like a bus that changes forms, time travel, students small enough to float through electrical wires, the last two pages handles the brickbats. The author admits certain things are not possible or provides explanation. Some additional clarification is provided for anyone who may want to look up some of the information.

The illustrations are fantastic - attractive, colourful and greatly help children understand the concepts. There are detailed diagrams to explain how things work e.g. turbines. Jokes are often inserted as speech bubbles. I mentioned that Miss Frizzle is ribbed but there are clever play on words and wit. I love the creative designs of Miss Frizzles dresses, complete with matching shoes and earrings. It complements the theme explored in each book and provides previews of what is in store. Again, the diagrams are fun but factual. I wish Bruce Degen illustrated some of the text books I read.

Being very interested in electrical appliances, Ew got a lot out of that book. He probably didn't grasp the part about atoms losing an electron and how the movement of electrons creates electricity but I think he acquired the basic understanding of electricity. He can name the electrical appliances in the house (vs. non electrical). He can explain the end effect of electricity for an electrical appliance to work e.g. generate heat or light, cause movement. During the Fukushima incident, there were pictures of the nuclear reactors in the newspapers. I explained those to him and he seemed to grasp the concept because he had seen pictures of turbines in The Magic School Bus book.

The next book we borrowed was "The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body". The students travel through the digestive system and learn about oxygenation of blood and organs. This was the book that travelled with us back to Malaysia and entertained the children for 2 weeks. Again, Ew could identify with a lot of the stuff covered because he had asked me about poo in Mamypoko once and I had drawn him a diagram of the digestive track from the mouth to the anus. The book didn't go in the same direction but it built on some knowledge that he already had and added more about blood cells, the brain and muscles. He probably can't tell you about muscle fibres, I can't either. During a trip to the hospital, he stopped in front of the Neurology Clinic, pointed to a diagram and said "Mummy, look ! That is the brain." I was impressed.

It was a nice coincidence that I happen to find the VCD for the TV tie in for the same at Tesco. It is called "The Magic School Bus Gets Eaten" but the story is similar to the book. I am not a big fan of TV, so I prefer the books. The kids watched it twice and haven't asked for it since. (For this I am indeed grateful. Amen.)
Then we read "The Magic School Bus Explores the Senses". It was information overload for my kids as the Magic School Bus went through the eyes, ears, nose, tongue. Ew wasn't interested. Maybe it would be more suitable for an older child who has explored those concepts before. I liked it for the explanation of how each sense works. The story was creative but Miss Frizzle wasn't driving the bus. And the vice-principle whatever his name, doesn't drive it as well. Who say men make better drivers ?

During a library visit, we came across two Magic School Bus books in a different format. The books are smaller, thinner and much simpler. Those were the Science Readers designed for children early readers to read on their own. Despite the simplicity, the science remains true. What impressed me was these books are not about simple, mundane (sorry) subjects that most readers tend to be. No "Fox does the trot" or repetitive "More spaghetti I say". No, the two books we borrowed were "The Magic School Bus Gets Crabby" and "The Magic School Bus Flies with the Dinosaurs". The Crabby one is about tide pools and the organisms within. The latter introduces the link between birds and dinosaurs. The students of Miss Frizzle's class go back in time and learn about the feathered dinosaurs of Liaoning Plain in China. I improved my dino-vocabulary with words like Jinzhousaurus, Confuciousornis.

Ae loved those simple Magic School Bus readers. She carried them to the dinner table many times to read while she ate. I think she had found in them books like those her brother was reading but more at her level.

We are currently have "The Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs" (classic book) and "The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth"(classic book). The former is a more popular choice in our household. We borrowed "The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth" first and read it a few times. Then my reservation of "The Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs" came through. After we picked up the "The Magic School Bus in the Time of the Dinosaurs" from the library, the "The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth" was left forgotten at the bottom of the book basket.

In summary,
1) great series of book about science except for the rude jokes about the teacher
2) suitable for children of various ages - pre-school to primary. This adult loves it too!
3) different levels of information present in a manner that allows one the choice to skim or delve
4) wide range of topics - start with those that interest your child to get the most out of it. As they start to like Miss Frizzle and the bus, introduce new topics.
5) different formats - from simple readers, classic books, chapter books, cartoons

To quote Miss Frizzle, "Fasten your seat belts and take a field trip on the Magic School Bus".

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Alishan, Day 1

In our 2 years here, our travel has centred around the train hotspots in Taiwan. Last June, we visited Taiping Shan to ride the Bong Bong train. In Dec, we saw the historical roundhouse in Changhua. I thought it was time for us to pay tribute to perhaps the most famous attraction in Taiwan - Alishan, to pay tribute to the iconic forest railway.

Alishan means 'Mount Ali'. It all becomes a bit confusing when Mummy tries to answer the 'Are we there yet?' question because there is no mountain there called Ali. Alishan covers a mountainous area which boasts several mountains (none called Ali). The name is derived from the name of a tribal chief, Abali. When out hunting with Abali, the aborigines never went home empty handed. Hence, Abali was revered among the aborigines and they named his hunting ground after him. When it became too much of  a mouthful, they shorted it to Alishan. (retold from memory, with poetic licence). On our trip, we explored the Alishan National Scenic Area (ANSA) and spend about a day in the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area (ANFRA) within the ANSA.
Unfortunately, about a week before we were scheduled to leave. The little forest railway was derailed by falling tree branches, killing 30 Chinese tourist. The little train service was suspended and remains suspended today as I write. It was a major disappointment for us but we were so looking forward to the trip that we proceeded anyway.

The Alishan National Scenic Area website is a great resource although the news has not been updated since 2010. I can't help but conclude that the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan is not actively encouraging people to visit Alishan. As I went along the trip, I understood why. Large stretches of Provincial Highway 18 leading to the ANFRA, damaged by Typhoon Morakot in 2010 are still being repaired. We saw signs of fresh landslides along the way. Twice, we came to roads that had collapsed and had to turn back and change our plans. It was scary.

So, lets get to our trip.

There are several ways to get to Alishan. The Taiwan High Speed Rail connects to Chiayi. A cheaper option is the ordinary train by the Taiwan Railway Administration or buses from Taipei. In Chiayi, one can transfer to buses or trains to the ANSA and ANFRA. A large number of visitors take advantage of this excellent public transport arrangement. Erm..we chose to self-drive for various reasons - I am a detailed packer and didn't want to risk leaving the kids' toilet seat on the train and my husband is a control freak who addresses himself as 'The Captain' (of his vessel).

We started off on a wet and smoggy Monday morning following a map provided by Mr. He, our favorite airport limo service provider. We decided to forgo the GPS at this point, as our device seem to have a penchant for small country lanes. Our route was National Highway 1, all the way to Yun Lin --> Provincial Highway 78 to Gukeng --> National Highway 3. It was somewhere along National Highway 3, that our GPS started to show its fetish for the narrow country lanes again. Somewhere around Jhuci, we found ourselves going up a small winding mountain road. The mist was coming in fast although it was around 4pm. Suddenly the little mountain road came to an end. Up in front was the remains of a road, broken and we could not see beyond that for the mist.

Ew became really worried. My son is an expressive worry wart. He worries out loud. That's my husband's gene, I know. I am the stoic, let's project an optimistic front type. My palms may be sweaty, my heart may be pounding but my lips are sealed. My son needs certainty. At his point of his life, he gets that from us. To see us hesitating, calling, stopping, turning back. That's outside his comfort zone. I want his to learn to be mindful of this as he grows.

At this point, I called our accommodation for the first night and found to my dismay we were off course. We had to head to Provincial Highway 18. We shifted the sails and turned back. In actual fact, the road was too narrow, we had to reverse down it. But as the mist cleared so did our spirits. We whooped when we saw this.

Well kids, we are sort of there
Well, it was another hours drive Shizhou, near where we were going to stay. It is within the ANSA and just outside the fringe of the ANFRA. Staying outside the ANFRA is cheaper. It also gives you the base to explore the attractions of the ANSA. There are many hidden gems.

We decided to make an impromptu stop when we spotted a train engine. We were getting fatigued having been in the car for about 5 hours. I have no idea where this is. If it is any help, the name starts with the Chinese character for bamboo. It was a fun 15 minutes piss stop.

The road started to get windy and my dear son became queasy. While his sister glugged down a bottle of milk, he puked up the little green Skittle and whatever liquid left in his stomach. Poor chap. It was quite impossible to stop. The mist came in again. Traffic up the mountains was heavy.

There are very few petrol stations in the ANSA. Consult the ANSA website for the locations. When in doubt, top up your tank as we did in Shizhou.  Finally arrived at our destination for the Day 1 - Lauya Restaurant and Guesthouse. Read my review of Lauya on Tripadvisor.

A balm for the weary travellers

Our room - second one from the left

Magnificent mountains showed themselves
when the mist cleared in the morning

Frogs were everywhere - we counted 8 hopping around us at night.
There were fireflies across the main road and in the slopes behind.
Ready to call it a day, we were disappointed to learn that the cooks at Lauya were away tending the farm plot. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise, we were very happy with our dinner that evening. About 10 minutes drive from Lauya, in Shizhou we found a gem of a restaurant. They have an English menu. We feasted on tea oil chicken, tofu, mountain vegetable. Our hostess was warm and efficient. During our trip, we went back a second time. To my amazement, she remembered what we ate 2 days ago and which table we sat at. That is customer delight !

This is it ! Pardon my inability of read Chinese.
It is along the main road in Shizhou,
opposite Hi Lite. Tel: 05-2562732
 To be continued....